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2023 Africa Cup of Nations Qualifying Preview: Group I

DR Congo

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FIFA Ranking: 67

AFCON Appearances: 19

Best Finish: Champions (1968, 1974)

Manager: Héctor Cúper

Key Player

Yoane Wissa (Brentford- England)

After the Leopards made it to the final round of 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying on the strength of veteran forwards Dieumerci Mbokani and Cédric Bakambu, the big question following their defeat to Morocco is who is going to provide the goals now that they are out of the picture. Enter the 25-year-old Wissa who scored in the first leg against the Atlas Lions. The 25-year-old is a complete modern attacker who can play on either wing or up top with pace, dribbling ability, finishing and an engine for pressing up high. Wissa had an excellent debut season in the English Premier League after making a big money move to Brentford, playing an important role with seven goals to help the top division debutants stay up comfortably.

Other players to watch

Jackson Muleka (Kasımpaşa- Turkey) The 22-year-old forward got off to a slow start in Europe after moving from Congolese titans TP Mazembe to Standard Liège in Belgium but a loan move to Turkey rejuvenated the 2019-20 CAF Champions League top scorer this past season. Muleka scored twelve goals and provided four assists in fourteen games over half a season to help Kasımpaşa finish mid-table and avoid a relegation battle. Leopards supporters hope he can improve on his record of one goal in nine appearances for the DRC.

Samuel Bastien (Standard Liège- Belgium) A central midfielder with a high work rate who can defensively but offers a strong shot from distance when moving forward, Bastien has over 100 appearances to his name with Standard in the Belgian Pro League. The 25-year-old’s role with DR Congo continues to grow since he elected to switch allegiance from his country of birth, Belgium.

Elia Meschack (Young Boys- Switzerland) An enigmatic winger/forward with electric pace and the dribbling skill to elude defenders, Meschack won the 2016 and 2017 CAF Confederation Cups with TP Mazembe as well as Player of the Tournament at the 2016 African Nations Championship (CHAN). The 25-year-old has yet to fully prosper with the senior national team but with more responsibility coming his way in the attack he will have a full opportunity to emerge as a star.

Outlook

With a proven manager in Cúper who knows how to keep his teams defensively solid, the individual talent in midfield and attack will go a long way for the Leopards as they attempt to establish themselves as a top-tier national team in Africa. A favorable draw has set the table for the DRC to return to the AFCON after letting their supporters down by missing out on the 2021 edition. It is difficult to predict how things will play out on the pitch with this side but anything less than first place in Group I will be a disappointment.

Mauritania

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FIFA Ranking: 113

AFCON Appearances: 2

Best Finish: Group Stage (2019, 2021)

Manager: Amir Abdou

Key Player

Aboubakar Kamara (Aris FC- Greece)

A stocky and muscular striker who has asserted himself in the Mauritanian side since debuting in 2021, quickly earning the captaincy while leading the attack. The former Fulham player had a productive first season in Greece with eleven goals this season for Aris and is in good form heading into Mauritania’s first qualifying fixtures. New manager Amir Abdou will be counting on the 27-year-old to provide the goals for his side, a department where the West African side has struggled as seen by a dismal performance at the 2021 AFCON with zero goals scored and seven conceded.

Other players to watch

Hemeja Tanjy (FC Nouadhibou- Mauritania) Mauritania’s rising domestic club scene is well represented in the national team and the 24-year-old forward continues to feature regularly. Tanjy struggled early on with the level of play in African national team football but continues to improve and offers dribbling ability and finishing.

Mohamed Dellahi Yahi (Al-Nasr- Libya) The defensive midfielder has already accumulated over fifty appearances for Mauritania at the age of 24 and is the captain of the side. Having spent time in Latvian, Algerian and now Libyan club football, expect Dellahi to drop back to collect the ball and initiate attacks with his proficient long range passing.

Aly Abeid (Valenciennes- France) Another experienced national team player at a relatively young age, Abeid has struggled with his club form but can fill in either at left back or in the center of defense. Defends pace well and is a capable passer when moving forward with the ball.

Outlook

The 2021 AFCON was a disaster for Mauritania after newly appointed manager at the time Didier Gomes da Rosa had little time to work with the team in preparation for the tournament in Cameroon. However, new coach Amir Abdou is coming off the excellent accomplishment of guiding Comoros to the knockout stage on their debut appearance and has plenty of experience with Mauritanian football from his time as head coach at FC Nouadhibou. This will be a more capable Mauritania side and there is enough talent in the team to make the 2021 AFCON a distant memory.

Gabon

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FIFA Ranking: 81

AFCON Appearances: 8

Best Finish: Quarterfinals (1996, 2012)

Manager: Patrice Neveu

Key Player

Aaron Boupendza (Al Arabi- Qatar)

The 25-year-old striker will help Gabonese supporters forget about the sudden departure of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The leading scorer in the 2020-21 Turkish Super League with 22 goals in 36 games, Boupendza was spectacular with Hatayspor before making the move to Qatari football the next season. Offering electric pace and the audacity every fan of football loves in a striker, Boupendza is a constant danger to defenses and established himself along with Jim Allevinah as the players opposing defenses need to pay constant attention to.

Other players to watch

Jim Allevinah (Clermont- France) The shifty winger/forward is a testament to how quickly a player in the lower leagues of French football can rise to the top division Ligue 1 in only a few years. Allevinah was brilliant at the 2021 AFCON and since committing to play for Gabon in 2019 has found his stride after being on the fringe of the starting eleven initially.

Guélor Kanga (Red Star Belgrade- Serbia) A dynamic attacking midfielder, Kanga initiates attacks with his ability to carry the ball forward and create for Gabon’s talented forward line. The 31-year-old starred at top clubs in Russia, Czech Republic and currently at Red Star Belgrade where he led the Serbian club to the UEFA Europa League round of 16 this season.

Bruno Ecuele Manga (Dijon- France) A captain for both club and country, the 33-year-old Ecuele Manga stepped right into the Gabon side as an 18-year-old in 2006 and continues to bring a strong physical presence in the heart of defense. Helped Cardiff City win promotion to the English Premier League for the 2018-19 season and currently captains Ligue 2 side Dijon.

Outlook

To many outsiders it seemed like Gabon were sunk at the 2021 AFCON when icon Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mario Lemina (except for one match) were forced out due to Covid-19 and injury but Les Panthères looked even better without the two players in Cameroon with a run to the knockout stage. Gabon have looked like a quality side under manager Patrice Neveu and should go on to clinch a ticket in Ivory Coast but they cannot afford to let complacency take hold because Mauritania or Sudan can easily sneak into a top-2 spot.

Sudan

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FIFA Ranking: 132

AFCON Appearances: 9

Best Finish: Champions (1970)

Manager: Burhan Tia

Key Player

Mohamed Abdelraman (Al-Hilal- Sudan)

Sudan manager Burhan Tia has led the national team into a transition period that saw many veterans ousted in favor of younger talent but Abdelraman is an irreplaceable attacking force who continues to be the focal point of the Sudanese attack. An evasive dribbler who can create opportunities for his teammates, the 28-year-old is at his best when he is on the finishing end of attacks. The 28-year-old will be counted on to lead the attack once again for a young team as they look to upset the odds and qualify for their second straight AFCON.

Other players to watch

Salaheldin Nemer (Al-Merrikh- Sudan) Another veteran on a young team, the center back captain leads by example and is counted on to distribute the ball out of the back. Unafraid to assert his physicality on opposing attackers and shows good anticipation and marking to intervene when passes come into the defensive third.

Yaser Muzmel (Al-Hilal- Sudan) An attacking teammate of Sudan star Abdelraman, the 30-year-old provided five goals for Al-Hilal during their 2021-22 CAF Champions League campaign that ended at the group stage. Has struggled at times when playing for Sudan but strong club form has given him another chance to make an impression and atone for a poor showing the last time he played for the national team at the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup.

Walieldin Khidir (Al-Hilal- Sudan) Reigning Sudanese Premier League champions Al-Hilal are well represented in this squad and Khidir is another key player from the team who figures to play an important role for the national team. Stays highly involved from his central midfield position with good passing range, active defensive work and quality set piece delivery when called upon.

Outlook

As seen in a 2021 AFCON tournament where they only earned one point, the transition is very much continuing for Sudan but despite the circumstances they still are a capable side. Sudan is always a difficult team to compete against when they are at home and will need to obtain maximum points in these fixtures because they are not favored to make it into the top-2 in Group I.

Prediction

  1. DR Congo
  2. Gabon
  3. Mauritania
  4. Sudan

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